Texas: Singing and Dancing in the Panhandle

Americana, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on July 8, 2001

Jo Stewart Randel turned her yearning to write about the vast high plainswhere wheat fields, cattle, and oil wells outnumbered folks a hundredfoldinto a nationally recognized museum, four history books, and one of the worlds most successful outdoor musicals. All without leaving Panhandle, Texas (pop. 2,259).

My husband wouldnt let me earn a dime on my own when we first moved out here 65 years ago, recalls the 85-year-old Randel, who had wanted to be a journalist. But after my daughter went off to college I had to find something to do to keep myself busy, because in those days there wasnt much going on out here.

Randel turned to accurately telling tales of the Texas Panhandle. She and a few friends founded the Square House Museum, where artifacts and dioramas from a reconstructed pioneer dugout to an exhibition of American Indian art interpret the history, geography, and arts of the region. In 1969, it became only the third museum in Texas to be accredited by the prestigious American Association of Museums.

We needed to preserve the Panhandles unique history, Randel says about the part of Texas that was just an immense sea of grass until pioneer settler Thomas Cree planted the very first tree near Panhandle in 1888. Im sure there were folks in Dallas that probably thought we were crazy to put a museum out in the middle of nowhere, but it was something we just had to do.

As founder and curator, Randel quickly became the resident expert on Panhandle history. In 1960, she joined a small group of people in creating an outdoor musical about the Panhandles history.

Someone had read an article in Readers Digest about this Broadway writer named Paul Green who had written musicals about other regions of the country, Randel says. We knew we had a great story to set to music, so we invited him to come to Texas. Green, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for a racially sensitive play called In Abrahams Bosom, agreed, and Randel advised him on details from plum-picking techniques to funeral traditions.

On July 1, 1966, TEXAS: A Musical Romance Of Panhandle History premiered in the brand new Pioneer Amphitheatre built inside the cliffs of the Panhandles Palo Duro Canyon, second in size in the United States only to the Grand Canyon. Every summer from mid-June until late August, the show still thrills audiences with riders galloping across 600-foot cliffs, amid music and heart-stopping lightning, courtesy of state-of-the-art sound and special effects.

The real story sometimes seemed stranger than fiction. Theres a scene in TEXAS where the Indians are dancing in the streets of the town, Randel explains. People say, Thats silly or Indians wouldnt do that, but the truth is it did happen.

Despite suffering a stroke two years ago, Randel continues to serve as first vice president of the Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit organization that supports TEXAS. She now directs the development staff from her room at Ware Memorial Nursing Home in Amarillo.

Randels friends, neighbors, and fellow volunteers say shell be working for years to come. Her energies, abilities, depth of character, and strong-willed tenaciousness have left an indelible imprint on the Panhandle of Texas, says Bill Waters, chairman of the M.K. Brown Foundation, a local organization dedicated to supporting the arts and other civic projects.

In honor of Randels work on behalf of TEXAS, the show dedicated last years 35th anniversary season to her.

Volunteers like you represent the true spirit of the Lone Star State, then-Gov. George W. Bush wrote to Randel.

West Texas A&M University recently gave Randel an honorary doctorate of arts for her many efforts across the region.

Our history and the arts are so important to all of us, Randel says. I cant imagine doing anything else but helping those causes that so enrich all of our lives.